Heart of Harker: Lessons from twelve years at Harker

by Victor Adler, Guest Writer

I always wanted to be a teacher, but throughout my life adults tried to talk me out of it for a host of reasons. When I finally committed to be a teacher, it even stunned my wife. I originally sought a job at a Harker rival. They rejected me. With hindsight that would be my fortune. In January of 2006, I dropped my resume for a job-fair event for private schools in San Francisco.
By February, Harker was the only school to pick up my application for a scheduled interview at the event. In that first interaction, Harker seemed to be the most organized and professional school around. When I researched Harker before the interview, I saw the courses offered and saw that Mathematica was utilized. I was simultaneously blown away and intrigued about the possibility of teaching at Harker, and I thought that it was definitely the place I wanted to be. Chris Nikoloff was just taking on the job as head of school, and he interviewed me. I was definitely nervous when I came to do my demo lesson and meet the faculty. Little did I know that four math teachers were departing that year and Harker was probably desperate. And little did I know that I was going to be “all-in.”

When people ask me, “Does it get boring to teach the same thing every year?” I explain that I’m in the people business, not in the math business. Each year is different because the students who make up the class change, there are different interactions and there are different challenges. Every year is an adventure. I find the students at Harker engaging. They’re intelligent, hard-working, talented and generally curious. I enjoy learning from them as much as teaching them. They come to me excited about a theorem they’ve read or even novel research in math. When the chorus used to be in Patil, the teachers having lunch out back would be serenaded by rehearsing students. Even the eagle painting or spirit dance gets my jaw to drop. So much goes on at the campus that it feels more like a school of 3000 than under 800, and I can’t keep up. My colleagues at Harker are similarly amazing. They’re fun, they’re supportive and they have high standards. They definitely spur me on to do always do better.

My first year certainly wasn’t easy. I came in thinking that the material is all-important and that students should go through the wringer. I thought that missing homework or being a little out of line in class deserved swift punishment rather than understanding. My current approach is far different from my first year, although students may still feel that they’re being put through the wringer in Multivariable Calculus and Differential Equations. Our students try to juggle too many things: class load, school activities, outside activities, and they expect perfection in everything. I want to help them be successful, but I have to balance being lenient with holding them accountable for their choices (personal accountability is one of our pillars).

In my third year at Harker the new pool was built, and the water polo program was revamped. I had the opportunity to become the boys’ assistant coach. Participating in water polo added a needed physical element to my duties at Harker. It’s intriguing and gratifying to see how the athletes progress over time and see the team chemistry develop (or not). Senior boys really step up when they see that they’re required to be responsible and hope springs eternal that we’ll have a great season. Water polo is just a classroom in the water, and coaching has actually informed my teaching.

At the start of my fifth year, I became class dean. Serving in this role has been an honor. Because I’m in the people business, I enjoy getting to try to know all the students in a class as dean. The job has pushed me out of my comfort zone because I don’t like being out front acting or whatever else the officers ask me to do. But I have to get out of my comfort zone if I’m going to ask students to get out of theirs.

I took a pay cut from my engineering job to be a teacher, but I haven’t regretted it for a moment. I have been fortunate to be at Harker and have the roles I have had. We have new buildings, but people make the school, and my experience has been that the students and staff are interesting, high-achieving and kind. Just amazing. I look forward to coming into work everyday.

This piece was originally published in the pages of The Winged Post on Aug. 31, 2018.